The Chicago Wolves begin their defense of the 2022 Calder Cup on Saturday, opening their season against none other than their most frequent rivals, the Milwaukee Admirals. The two teams met twice in the preseason, but there isn’t much to be gleaned from games heavy on ECHL players. With puck drop just a few days away, let’s look at what the season may have in store.
Forwards: Jack Drury, Ryan Suzuki, Stelio Mattheos, Noel Gunler, Jamieson Rees, Vasili Ponomarev, Ivan Lodnia (AHL)
Defense: Griffin Mendel (AHL), Max Lajoie, Cavan Fitzgerald
Goaltender: Pyotr Kochetkov
Many of the players who propelled the Wolves to the Calder Cup have moved on — Andrew Poturalski to the Kraken organization, Josh Leivo to the Blues, C.J. Smith to the Rangers organization. The Hurricanes plucked Stefan Noesen and Jalen Chatfield from Chicago, with both players making the season opening roster for the NHL club. The turnover is par for the course for an AHL team but makes it hard to build on a previous season’s success.
There are still some big names returning, however, starting with goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov. The netminder came over last season at the conclusion of his KHL season and immediately became a fan favorite. With his athletic play and fiery attitude, Wolves fans quickly rallied behind the rookie. The net is almost indisputably Kochetkov’s this season; the Hurricanes signed veteran Zach Sawchenko to help fill out their suddenly depleted pipeline, but expect Kochetkov to get the bulk of the work.
Noel Gunler and Vasily Ponomarev also joined the Wolves towards the end of the regular season and made appearances during the playoffs. Both young forwards look to build off of their first taste of the AHL and should take on a larger role on this year’s squad. Ponomarev in particular had an impressive debut, recording 10 points in 11 regular season games, and six through 18 playoff games. He seemed like an easy fit on the team, looking more like an experienced veteran than a 20-year old making his North American professional debut.
Jack Drury’s inclusion on the list of returning players is definitely a surprise, although I can’t possibly see his presence on the Wolves lasting long. His dominant performance during the playoffs raised expectations for the forward, who former coach Ryan Warsofsky once described as having “no ceiling” when it comes to what he could achieve in the NHL. Drury has little left to prove in the AHL, but for as long as he’s here, expect him to take on top line minutes. He’ll be a leader on the Wolves who will hopefully use getting caught up in the numbers/cap game as fuel to achieve even more.
Ryan Suzuki continues to be a big question mark, especially as he begins this season injured yet again. If he stays healthy, he can have as big a role on this team as he’s able to seize. His injury history has made it hard for him to get consistent playing time, however, so it’s yet to be seen what he can really bring at this level.
Forwards: Alexander Pashin, Ryan Dzingel, Eric Cooley (AHL), Joseph LaBate (AHL), Lane Pederson, Mackenzie MacEachern, Malte Stromwall, Tuukka Tieksola, Josh Melnick (AHL), Brendan Perlini (PTO), Nate Sucese (PTO), Blake Murray
Defense: William Lagesson, Anttoni Honka, David Farrance (AHL), Jason Garrison (PTO), Ronan Seeley
Goaltender: Cale Morris (AHL), Jeremy Brodeur (PTO), Zachary Sawchenko
While there’s no assurance of a contract, the Wolves have several players with them on try-out arrangements. AHL professional tryouts are limited to 25 games, but players may be signed to repeated PTOs during a season.
One of the more intriguing, and potentially necessary, PTOs is for defenseman Jason Garrison. The veteran of 555 NHL games got into just nine games with the Syracuse Crunch on a PTO last season prior to being released. Garrison is no stranger to the Wolves organization; he logged 58 games with the Wolves in 2017-18, when they were still affiliated with the Vegas Golden Knights. His best days are certainly behind him, but his value comes more in the department of intangibles than what he may offer on the ice. The Hurricanes are currently carrying eight defensemen and may ultimately reassign one of them to the AHL, but until they do, Garrison could be in Chicago to help provide a veteran presence on the blue line.
For Hurricanes fans with an eye towards prospects, the Wolves should be a fun watch this season. The Wolves are getting several potentially high-impact young players this season, including Alexander Pashin, who scored two of the Wolves’ three goals in the pre-season. The 2020 draft pick coming to North America now was a bit of a surprise, but he could provide some fun offense for the Wolves.
Our own Matthew Somma had this to say about Pashin in his review of the Hurricanes’ prospects:
Pashin’s skating is elite and it allows for him to create offense off of the rush and gain separation from his opponents. Pashin’s elite speed means that he can create zone entries all by himself, so he’s a real threat on the rush. Wingers usually don’t generate as many zone entries as Pashin can, but since he’s such a good skater and a smart player on top of that, it works. Pashin is the driving force behind any line that he’s on, and he combines his skating and hockey sense with a strong offensive tool kit. Pashin’s shot release is dangerously good and he is able to score from high to medium danger areas.
With such a young roster, veteran players like Lane Pederson (five seasons in the AHL), Mackenzie MacEachern (parts of four seasons in the AHL, including two with the Wolves between 2016-2018), and Ryan Dzingel (seven seasons in the NHL) will be crucial both on and off the ice. The transition to professional hockey is often more difficult than young prospects expect, so having players around who have been there before is always welcome.
Behind the Bench
Of course, the biggest change for the Wolves isn’t necessarily the roster — it’s the man calling the shots. Brock Sheahan makes the jump up from the USHL to coach professional men’s hockey for the first time. In a conversation with Sheahan last month, he spoke of a coaching style that isn’t going to be much different than what Wolves fans are already used to:
We’re gonna play fast. We’re gonna play hard. Traditionally, my teams have been really good off the puck. We have the puck as much as possible and we want to score at a high rate. The best way to put it is I want us to be a complete team. [...] It’s really important that the team is connected and cohesive, as far as the way we play.
Sheahan is used to working with high potential players, having coached players including Owen Power, Brendan Brisson, and Matt Coronato while with the Chicago Steel. He’s been able to get the best out of his players and help lead them to be consistent contenders in the USHL each year.
On the one hand, expectations are sky high for the Wolves, who turned in a dominant 2021-22 season en route to the Clark Cup and are returning several key players to this year’s squad. On the other, it’s almost like you’re playing with house money after winning a championship. There’s little room for a dynasty in today’s AHL, where roster turnover is high and the focus is always going to be more on developing players. The NHL can always snatch up your best forward or star goaltender during your playoff run, after all, instantly altering your team’s fortunes.
The road to the top of the division could require getting past Milwaukee. The Admirals always seem to be a threat, particularly when you play them 12 times a season. Most notably, the Admirals added goaltender Yaroslav Askarov, who is widely considered one of the best goalie prospects in the league. Goaltending duels between Askarov and Kochetkov seem like a fun, if stressful, way to spend an evening or two.
Other teams in the Central Division haven’t made significant enough moves to make them feel like a threat. The Rockford IceHogs may benefit from Chicago’s predicament, as players like Lukas Reichel may spend more time in the AHL simply to be on a team that may actually win a good number of games. The Grand Rapids Griffins have added some intriguing pieces, with 2021 first round pick Simon Edvinsson coming over, as well as a bonafide goaltending pipeline. The Texas Stars add some potential for offense in 2020 first round pick Mavrik Bourque, one of Dallas’s top prospects. Are any of those players enough to boost their team’s playoff chances? We’ll find out soon.
The Wolves have one last chance to revel in their victory, for returning players. (Or to dream of what might be, for all of the new faces on the roster.) On Saturday, they’ll raise their championship banner in front of a devoted crowd, and then the quest to climb to the top of the mountain will begin again.